Supreme Court Hears Animal Video Case

October 7, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments October 6, 2009, in a case that could affect how environmental journalists do their jobs. Some justices skeptically questioned a 10-year-old law making it a criminal offense to possess or publish many depictions of cruelty to animals.

The Society of Environmental Journalists and other media groups have urged the Court to strike the law down as an unconstitutionally broad restriction on First Amendment rights.

The law was intended to outlaw "crush videos," a form of fetish pornography. But sloppy draftsmanship left it so vague that it could send to jail a journalist for merely possessing film of out-of-season fishing, or an animal-rights group trying to arouse public sympathy against a puppy mill.

"A federal appeals court struck down the law and invalidated the conviction of Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Va., who was sentenced to three years in prison for videos he made about pit bull fights," reported the Associated Press.

"In the end, the justices appeared inclined to agree that the law is too broad and could, in some instances, apply to videos about hunting," the AP reported. "'Why not do a simpler thing?' Justice Stephen Breyer asked an administration lawyer. 'Ask Congress to write a statute that actually aims at the frightful things they were trying to prohibit.'"

The Obama administration made a decision to continue the Bush administration's efforts to uphold the law and its restrictions on Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press. It had an option as to whether to continue appealing a case the federal government had lost at the Appeals Court level.